Monday, April 21, 2014
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From Penn State to Not Penn State

If you have been around the Penn campus for any amount of time, you have probably seen one of those T-shirts that says "NOT PENN STATE" across the front.

From Penn State to Not Penn State

If you have been around the Penn campus for any amount of time, you have probably seen one of those t-shirts that says "NOT PENN STATE" across the front.

The t-shirts are a pretty old joke at the point, even though they still pop up every now and again. Whether because of Penn's rise in academic prominence or because people have just figured it out, the schools in Philadelphia and State College don't get mixed up all that often anymore.

Or at least not as much as they used to be. A few weeks after Joe Paterno was fired, I remember chatting with one of the people on Penn's sports information staff. The person was surprised at how few phone calls the department had received from people angry about the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

That said, there's no question that Penn State casts a shadow over every other football program in the state. It does so when times are good, and it does so when times are bad

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, given how big the fan base is; there's just the not-so-small problem of a massive child abuse scandal hanging over Beaver Stadium at the moment.

(If any Temple fans wish to dispute the existence of that shadow, I remind you that the Owls were the home team in name only when the Nittany Lions played at the Linc last year and in 2007. As for Pittsburgh fans, if the Panthers and Nittany Lions ever play each other again, they'll be closer to level terms.)

At least Temple and Pitt are within earshot of Penn State on the scale of football cultures among Pennsylvania's Division I programs. Penn, however, is not.

Well of course it isn't, I hear you saying. That's the whole point of the Ivy League, and you're going to make this some kind of pretentious thing about how the Ivy League is better than everybody else, aren't you? How the conference "puts athletics in perspective" and all that hyperbole? Spare us the holier-than-thou.

Yeah, I get that. I don't want to make this holier-than-thou. But when I had the opportunity at Penn's football media day on Monday to ask Al Bagnoli for his perspective on the Penn State scandal, I took it.

And I think you know me well enough to know that in the course of my time writing on here, I've highlighted good aspects and plenty of bad aspects to the Ivy League's approach.

This isn't about what I think, it's about what Bagnoli thinks. Nothing more, honestly. He has known Bill O'Brien for many years, and the two used to coach against each other in the 1990's when O'Brien was at Brown. That's grounds enough for a story. But there are more layers to it, as we all know. So here you are.

"It has tainted one of the icons in the history of coaching," Bagnoli told me. "It's unfortunate on every level: the victims, what happened in terms of collateral damage with the administrators, the president, the athletic director, the vice president, the entire board of trustees, the brand of Penn State. And then it permeates all the way down through the coaches, the support staff of the coaches, and to the kids."

I asked Bagnoli where he thinks the balance between athletics and academics ought to stand. The contrast between the Ivy League and the rest of Division I is obvious, but the particular balance at Penn isn't quite the same as it is at other schools in the Ivy League, much less the rest of the country.

"I think we'd be a good model for everybody, but it's not practical for everybody," Bagnoli said.

He didn't mean that quite as selfishly as you might think. As Bagnoli explained it, the "model" is simply the simple fact that Ivy League football programs aren't big enough to subsidize the rest of their schools' athletic departments.

"For schools that have enough funds, whether it's endowment funds or the ability to fundraise, you can use any model you want, and [the Ivy League] would be a good a model as any," he said. "The problem is that as everybody pursues the almighty dollar, those funds get used to supplement a lot of other things."

That last line will draw cheers from people who think the Ivy League does things right. There are also people out there who would argue that putting football and basketball games on national television doesn't hurt the caliber of a school's academics, and doesn't mean that schools are putting money ahead of principle.

I concluded the interview by asking Bagnoli if he thinks there's less pressure on a coach at a place like Penn than there is at a BCS-level program. Of everything he said, I think this was the most interesting part, so I'm just going to give it to you as a block quote:

All the pressure is just really internal. You can talk to Alabama or LSU - their expectations are every bit as high as anybody else. You talk here, our expectations are every bit as high as what people expect of us. Now at times, people are a little bit more forgiving here. It's not a 24-7 campaign to get rid of the head basketball coach or the head football coach, as it can turn into at some of these other places.

But I think that any time you keep score, any time you're perceived as one of the flagship programs, there's pressure, and it's inherent in the profession. It's inherent and you signed up for it when you became a coach.

I did not reach out to Glen Miller or Joe Scott for a response to Bagnoli's remark about campaigning to get rid of a head basketball coach... okay, that was supposed to be funny. I couldn't help thinking of the outcry against Miller while Bagnoli was talking. By Ivy League standards, it was pretty vicious, and people at Princeton turned fiercely against Joe Scott too.

Yet what Miller and Scott went through pales in comparison even to the trash talk thrown at Phil Martelli and Jay Wright by commenters here on Philly.com. There are people who are quite annoyed with Fran Dunphy's lack of NCAA Tournament wins at Temple, regardless of his success the rest of the year - not to mention his character as a person.

You need only look as far away as Maryland to find a basketball fan base that couldn't even be happy with the most successful coach in its program's history. Gary Williams was criticized mercilessly by many Terrapins supporters even after he won a national championship simply because Maryland wasn't Duke.

And that's before you get to Ben Howland at UCLA, Mike Davis at Indiana, Matt Doherty at North Carolina or Billy Gillespie at Kentucky.

Coaches are always going to put enormous amounts of pressure on themselves to win; it's in their DNA. But perhaps we should add another item to the list of ways in which the big-time football schools differ from the small ones: there's less pressure from outside the coach's office.

You can decide for yourselves whether or not that's a good thing.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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